MADEIRA BEACH — This week's commission standing-room-only meeting started at an emotional boil, as though last week's special meeting when City Manager Shane Crawford was suspended and City Clerk Cheryl Crawford was fired had never ended.
After three hours, the meeting ended more calmly with more than two-thirds of its audience gone and commissioners agreeing to Vice Mayor John Douthirt's suggestion that they needed a therapist to help them learn to get along.
"The city is divided as everyone knows," Douthirt said.
Opposition to two proposed hotel projects was the central issue in the recent election that resulted in a shift in power on the commission — a shift away from large-scale development.
During the meeting, the commission heard the Crawfords' lawyer accuse the commission of breaking the state Sunshine Law and an announcement by the city's attorney, Tom Trask, that he would stop serving the city when his contract is up in early June.
Despite a still-simmering audience, the commission did approve:
•Two beer and wine licenses, one for The Dive Bar, a new business on Madeira Way, and a John's Pass cafe, Beach Fun and Games.
•FEMA grants for rehabilitation of two city homes;
•A state Department of Transportation plan to resurface portions of Gulf Boulevard next year; and
•A glowing audit report that said the city finances are in good shape.
They also hired Walter Pierce as budget director to help the new commission set spending priorities for the coming year and appointed Assistant Clerk Nick Lewis as interim city clerk.
Pierce previously served in financial director roles for the cities of Venice and Indian Shores, as well as for the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's office, and the Orange and Sarasota counties school boards. He will be paid $90,000 a year.
He is in line to become the city's finance director, a position that can be filled, according to the city charter, only by a city manager — which the city does not now have.
Ironically, Pierce was recommended for the position by Crawford, who said he was "the best he could find" during an extensive search that was not complete when the commission moved to fire him last week.
The Crawfords' attorney, Jay Hebert, spoke for nearly a half hour, urging the commission to tread very carefully in their handling of his clients' terminations.
He also chided the commission for improperly handling the suspension and termination, which, he said, violated city rules and procedures, declaring the suspension and firing "null and void."
Despite city rules, the city has so far failed to send a formal notice of that termination to Crawford, leaving him uncertain whether he is actually suspended or if he should be coming to work.
Hebert also strongly protested the reasons Mayor Maggi Black gave for suspending Shane Crawford, which he said were unfounded.
Last week, Black had accused the city manager of being "less than truthful" about his search for a new finance director, concluding that officials and residents had lost confidence in his ability to run the city.
The only thing the Crawfords, who are married, are guilty of, he said, is meeting, getting official permission to date, falling in love and getting married.
Hebert informed the commission that he is investigating "substantial" violations of the Sunshine Law.
He said he has "a great deal of evidence" that such violations happened, and has made an extensive public records request for commissioners' phone, text and other records.
"You don't want to have to start removing people because they violated the Sunshine laws," Hebert warned.